The anti aging benefits of yoga for health have been a marvel in my life. I am a doctor and I spent last Friday and Saturday at a yoga-intensive workshop. Again, I’m again astounded by what a completely transformative experience a yoga practice can be.
When I first wrote this article in 2010, I had only practiced yoga for 2 years. I am updating it in 2023. This means I've practiced yoga steadily for almost 15 years. The anti aging impact is so profound for me that I know I’ve altered the course of my aging journey.
I highly recommend 2 to 3 days a week of yoga for healthy aging.
The image here is me in the plow pose. When I started yoga, I could never have done this! My back hurt all the time. For many years I suffered musculoskeletal problems that were gradually reducing my functionality. Yoga has stopped this decline in my functional fitness. It has increased my odds of aging as a fit, functional, vital woman who stands up straight and can pick up things that she drops on the floor!
I don't want to join the ranks of the frail elderly without a fight and yoga is one of the powerful puzzle pieces I’ve found to help me. - Dr. Bailey
Scientific studies support my observation on the health and anti aging benefits of yoga for our body and mind. Yoga is proven to
- Reduce low back pain
- Improve balance
- Straighten spinal kyphosis (the excessive hunching over that happens to people as they age)
- Improve muscle strength and reverses the muscle loss that happens with age
- Improve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms
- Improve menopausal symptoms including hot flashes, insomnia and mood swings
- Decrease anxiety and depression
- Improve control of type 2 diabetes
- Increase flexibility
Being the good doctor that I am, I did a medical literature search on the health and anti aging benefits of yoga and this is what I found:
I started doing yoga for my back pain and I can attest to its benefits so I wasn’t surprised when I saw:
Yoga reduces back pain
- The Harvard Women’s Health Watch recommending yoga to help people reduce back pain.
- Scientists have also found that yoga helps straighten the hunched over back that we get as we age (called kyphosis). This is indeed an important anti aging benefit of yoga for many of us.
In my experience, this hunching over makes doing everything harder because it puts new strain and stresses on our body that we aren’t designed for, thus leading to more injury and disability. For me personally, this is one of the biggest anti aging benefits of yoga in my life!
Yoga reduces rheumatoid arthritis pain and improves balance
Another one of the anti aging benefits of yoga is proven in a scientific study that found that yoga decreased pain, improved balance and increased functionality for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Kaliji, the founder of Tri-yoga, which is what I practice, notes that she is the only member of her large family not suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis. She attributes this to her 30 plus years of yoga and her vegan diet. As a doctor, I would say that yoga certainly worth a try for anyone suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, since all the treatment alternatives have significant side effects and don’t really stop this debilitating disease.
I personally have inherited psoriatic arthritis and enthesitis from my dad's side of the family. Enthesitis is inflammation where tendons and ligaments attach to bone near joints. The pain feels a lot like arthritis. A more recent study has shown that yoga reduces the level of inflammatory markers associated with inflammatory conditions - such as psoriatic arthritic in my case! I know that yoga helps because when I slack off on my regular yoga practice, I stiffen up and hurt. That plow pose is really important to keep my back nimble and pain-free.
Yoga is a form of resistance training to help you maintain muscle fitness with age
Yoga also provides excellent total body resistance exercise training which slows the loss of muscle that we all experience as we age.
The Buck Institute for Age Research demonstrated that resistance exercise training actually reverses a good portion of age-related muscle loss, which is otherwise an inevitable consequence of aging for us all. I've always done resistance fitness and my yoga class give me the most total body resistance workout of my life; both small and large muscles work against gravity moving the mass of my body weight (which is heavier than any dumbbell or the weight machine settings that I've ever used). My strength continues to increase and I’m certain my yoga practice is providing good resistance training to help preserve my muscles as I age.
Yoga benefits for diabetes
The study that surprised me the most was that yoga-nidra helps control type 2 diabetes!
I would never have predicted this correlation, but in a study from India, people with type 2 diabetes had better blood glucose control when they added 30 minutes a day of yoga-nidra to their lives. Yoga-nidra is the meditative relaxation exercise done usually at the end of a yoga class. This benefit of yoga is fascinating to me.
Yoga reduces menopause symptoms
I’m not at all surprised that menopausal symptoms are reduced by yoga, mine certainly were. This is an anti-aging benefit of yoga that is really important for we menopausal women.
Scientific evidence suggests that a yoga practice reduces hot flashes, insomnia and the lovely mood issues we women get when we hit menopause. It’s curious that I gravitated towards yoga during menopause and I'm glad I did (Hmmm... survival instinct, inner guidance, guardian angel or just a coincidence?). Amazing! Menopause is a challenge for speeding up the aging of our skin. I have a lot of advice for skin care after menopause!! Skin care helps but the anti aging benefits of yoga must surly help slow overall physiologic aging too.
Facial yoga may improve facial appearance in aging women
A study done at Northwestern University showed that a 30 minute facial yoga routine done daily or every other day for 20 weeks modestly improves the appearance of cheek fulness in some middle-age women! The theory is that the muscles may gain fitness that fills out the cheek. As a 'middle-age' dermatologist, I know that our facial fat pads fall and we lose cheek fullness with age. This leads to the sagging jowls and square lower face shape that none of us like.
I just found this study as I updated the post in 2023. I looked over the exercises and some concern me for increasing dynamic wrinkles including forehead wrinkles, the '11's between the brows and the 'smoker's' lip lines. I'm going to do a little more research and see if I can find options for the lower face that don't increase the dynamic wrinkles that we use Botox to relax. If you are interested in the exercises, find some of them here at Northwestern's magazine.
As a dermatologist, I know that improving lost facial fullness is one important anti-aging approach to reducing the appearance of the aging face. Another important approach is to address the skin's actual appearance in terms of thinning, crepey texture, wrinkles and uneven pigment. We do this with laser, chemical peels and a medical-grade skin care routine. This includes using products that can truly build skin collagen to soften wrinkles and reduce skin thinning.
The routine in my Ageless Rejuvenation Skin Care Kit addresses skin thinning and pigment problems. I also utilize the most powerful antioxidants (green tea polyphenols) in this routine to fight free radical skin damage. This is the routine that I have used for years for my own skin care. Based on the Northwestern study, I may consider adding facial yoga if I can tailor the exercises in a way that does not increase dynamic wrinkles.
Yoga mental and emotional health benefits
Finally, yoga is great for us mentally and emotionally.
This applies even for the lucky folks who aren't in menopause. A study published in Behavioral Cognitive Psychotherapy showed that yoga increased mindfulness, which the authors define as attention to the present moment, having an accepting and open attitude toward experience, and insightful understanding. The authors conclude that this indicates that yoga may help prevent the negative emotional states of anxiety and depression. Dermatologists know that stress can worsen skin problems. This adds yoga to personal wellness tips for skin health too!
There are different styles of yoga and different quality instructors.
I think the most important tip to reaping the full anti aging benefits of yoga is to pick the right instructor for you.
In my experience, there are some great yoga instructors and then there are people with a yoga teaching certificate who have very little experience and knowledge and who don’t really know what they’re doing. Until I found my present (and wonderful) yoga teacher, I actually managed to hurt myself in yoga classes. Yoga is an ancient practice that’s stood the test of time. It’s the instructor that determines what you learn and therefore critical to your experience. I recommend that you follow your gut and search until you find a really good yoga instructor.
For my local Sonoma County readers, I study with Kashi in Sebastopol. Kashi has practiced a form of yoga called Tri-yoga for over 30 years. Her experience, judgment and the authenticity of her yoga makes for an extraordinary yoga class.
I’ve also found that the Tri-yoga style of yoga practice is the perfect fit for me. The Hatha yoga poses are choreographed into slow and continuously moving routines (flows). This constant movement not only works the big muscles, but also works the small muscles around the joints as we move repeatedly between the postures. This also creates a nice meditative state during the entire ‘workout’ that also provides resistance training and a good exercise workout. Add to that the stretching poses which fend off old age stiffness, and I’m in ‘self-help multi-tasker’ nirvana! There’s also some crazy breathing exercises and funny finger workouts that my body seems to benefit from as well. I just love my yoga class!
The final benefit I’ve found with my class is the social camaraderie and mutual support of people who share my interest in health and well-being. We’re on the same paths, trying to take good care of our bodies and minds. Sharing that with compatible people reinforces the efforts I’m making in my own life. To maximize the anti aging benefits of yoga, shop for the right yoga instructor and class so that you love your practice!
I highly recommend that everyone interested in healthy aging add a yoga practice to their life!
Wishing you all the best... and namaste!
Dr. Cynthia Bailey, Board Certified Dermatologist
Author: Dr. Cynthia Bailey M.D. is a Board Certified dermatologist practicing dermatology since 1987. She has done well over 200,000 skin exams during her career and authors the longest running physician written skin health blog in the world.
Resistance exercise reverses aging in human skeletal muscle, Melov S, Tarnopolsky MA, Beckman K, Felkey K, Hubbard A. (The Buck Institute for Age Research, Novato, California, United States of America) PLoS One. 2007 May 23;2(5):e465.
Yoga therapy helps relieve chronic lower back pain, Harv Womens Health Watch. 2009 Nov;17(3):4
Effect of yoga-nidra on blood glucose level in diabetic patients, Amita S, Prabhakar S, Manoj I, Harminder S, Pavan T. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 2009 Jan-Mar;53(1):97-101.
A pilot study measuring the impact of yoga on the trait of mindfulness, Shelov DV, Suchday S, Friedberg JP. Behav Cogn Psychother. 2009 Oct;37(5):595-8. Epub 2009 Sep 15.
Yoga decreases kyphosis in senior women and men with adult-onset hyperkyphosis: results of a randomized controlled trial. Greendale GA, Huang MH, Karlamangla AS, Seeger L, Crawford S. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2009 Sep;57(9):1569-79. Epub 2009 Jul 21.
Exercise to reduce vasomotor and other menopausal symptoms: a review, Daley AJ, Stokes-Lampard HJ, Macarthur C, Maturitas. 2009 Jul 20;63(3):176-80. Epub 2009 Mar 13.
A pilot study of a Hatha yoga treatment for menopausal symptoms, Booth-LaForce C, Thurston RC, Taylor MR, Maturitas. 2007 Jul 20;57(3):286-95. Epub 2007 Mar 2.
Functional and physiological effects of yoga in women with rheumatoid arthritis: a pilot study, Bosch PR, Traustadóttir T, Howard P, Matt KS, Altern Ther Health Med. 2009 Jul-Aug;15(4):24-31.
Photo attribution: Handarmdoc